Britology Watch: Deconstructing \’British Values\’

28 June 2007

Gordon Brown’s School Motto

In his short speech following his appointment to the post of prime minister yesterday, GB [Gordon Brown] stated that he will continue to be guided, as he has always been, by his High School motto: “I will try my utmost”.

The actual motto of Kirkcaldy High School is, in Latin, ‘Usque conabor’. GB’s translation is correct, although the emphasis on ‘my utmost’ is revealing: he could have said ‘I will try to the utmost’. This is in fact a rather individualist motto, reflecting a personal determination and ambition to improve oneself through education and hard work. In this respect, it’s unlike most school mottos, which make statements about the moral value of work, or other activities and qualities, in general. Traditionally, these aphorisms are also frequently tied in with Christian ethical ideals or even mention God explicitly – such as in my own school’s motto, Domine dirige nos (Lord guide us).

Conscious, perhaps, of the unusually individualistic character of its motto, the High School has now modified the translation to ‘Working Together to Improve’. While this motto in turn, in its reaffirmation of the socially progressive value of work and education, could almost serve as a campaign slogan for the Labour Party, it is distinctly more collaborative than the original translation that embedded itself in GB’s memory.

We are left with an impression of a prime minister who will indeed work hard. But at the same time, we cannot be sure that the objectives towards which he will strive will be ones commanding the assent of even the majority of the people, let alone all the people – rather than just goals which GB has determined in advance and will be resolute in carrying through. Certainly, we can’t be sure that he will be guided by the Christian principles of his Church of Scotland father, let alone the wider Christian tradition of service to others that the queen symbolises as head of state and head of the Church of England.

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